Amazon Prime released the science fiction film “Bliss” on February 5, 2021, following the quarantine trend of releasing movies directly to streaming services. Directed by Mike Cahill, the film stars Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek. This powerhouse combination should not get your hopes up, unfortunately. Your first question might be how Owen Wilson fits into a sci-fi film, and honestly, that should give you a sense of how the whole movie plays out.
“Bliss” begins with Greg Wittle in his office drawing sketches of his dream house and a mysterious woman. He is then summoned to his boss’s office, where he gets fired and responds by pushing his boss, who somehow ends up flying backward and fatally hitting his head — the first of many moments in this movie where your first thought will be huh? Whittle manages to escape to a bar across the street where he meets a woman who is shocked that Wittle is real. Just like you right now, he had no idea what that meant.
This mystical woman introduces herself as Isabel and reveals to Wittle that they are living in a simulation, and most people around them are fake, but the two of them are real. She uses her magic to make the death of Wittle’s boss look like a suicide, which convinces Wittle of her story. He follows her to her elaborate tent home. Isabel convinces him to stay with her until the death investigation concludes.
Enter: a montage of the two falling in love. Isabel reveals herself as the mysterious woman from his drawings, and they continue on their adventures using the magic fueled by Isabel’s yellow potion. Wittle begins to lose touch with reality, unaware of the passing time and eschewing his responsibilities. By responsibilities, I mean his daughter Emily’s graduation, which, in the first scene, he had promised to attend. Emily begins searching for him, increasingly concerned about her father’s mental state.
That’s enough plot: I don’t want to spoil everything in the movie, but, essentially, the two oscillate between the “real” world and the simulation, and as the movie progresses everything grows more blurred and muddled. I definitely felt lost — and not the type of lost I feel during movies like “Inception,” where my brain is working and I am supposed to be floundering over where I am. This was different. Something here made me feel unnecessarily lost, like I could use a little more guidance to appreciate the movie.
Director Mike Cahill is known for ambiguous science fiction that probes thought-provoking questions from the audience, but this film fails to do anything new. Open-ended questions are plentiful in the science-fiction genre, but they need a purpose. It is very difficult to tell what Cahill’s purpose was in “Bliss.”
What this movie needed is one of two things — clarity or purpose. Cahill could keep the plotline but make it a little easier to follow, so it doesn’t just feel aimlessly incoherent. Or, if he is set on keeping everything unclear, justify it with something that leaves the audience in awe, that makes people want to have conversations and read reviews to grapple with what happened on screen. Make them want to rewatch the movie to answer their lingering questions. To keep the unknown and ambiguity, you need to fill it with intention so the viewer craves answers.
A sci-fi dystopia would make sense as an escape from pandemic life. If this film was done well, maybe it would have hit this target. But Cahill might have been tapping into a market that was not even there to start. This film might require more thinking than people can handle right now. Pandemic life is stressful, and the last thing people need is a movie that is going to make their head hurt. Maybe “Bliss” was destined to flop being released during COVID, but it does not seem to check the boxes for making it big during any period of time, anyway.